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The Boston Phoenix Translation

A short-story collection decodes mysteries of culture

By Katherine Guckenberger

JUNE 14, 1999: 

INTERPRETER OF MALADIES, by Jhumpa Lahiri. Mariner Books, 198 pages, $12, (paperback).

These are heady days for Indian writing, and they're only getting headier. It's fortunate for American readers, then, that the bulk of Indian literature is written in English. In his introduction to Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing, published in 1997 to coincide with the anniversary of India's independence, Salman Rushdie argued that "Indo-Anglian" writing is stronger and more important than the literature being written in India's 16 "official" languages. Rushdie's defense of English-language Indian literature is a direct response to critics who see the use of the colonial language as inappropriate at best and inexcusable at worst -- a charge that has been leveled against English-language writers from post-colonial societies around the world. Unfortunately, the generally poor quality of translations forces many of these writers to choose English over their native tongues; artful translations are rare, and many writers would rather control what their audience reads than rely on translators.

Indian literature written in English, however, is not without its own problems. Most of the Indian fiction we read is carefully manipulated to appeal to us -- customs, history, and geography obvious to an Indian audience are explained in detail; national figures, such as Gandhi, are introduced like strangers; Hindi words, unless utterly clear in meaning, are defined. As an American, I appreciate such concessions, but the risk of overcompensation, in many cases, outweighs the benefit. I know who Gandhi is.

Jhumpa Lahiri, author of Interpreter of Maladies, is a woman of Indian descent -- but, born in London and raised in Rhode Island, she is as American as I am. Interpreter of Maladies, her first collection of short stories, is a testament to Lahiri's versatility as a writer: she changes cultural perspective as easily as a bilingual speaker shifts from language to language. And not a word of it feels spoon-fed. For an American reader, these stories are at once subtle and informative, filling cultural gaps with the invisible ease granted only to writers of foreign heritage and exceptional skill.

One of the ways that Lahiri accomplishes this is by looking at Indian culture from the perspective of a child, a Midwesterner, or an Indian-American. In "Mrs. Sen," for example, an 11-year-old boy in an American college town watches his baby sitter, Mrs. Sen, go about her chores, from chopping vegetables with a blade "curved like the prow of a Viking ship" to applying a fresh streak of crushed vermilion to the part in her hair with the head of a thumbtack, while describing the life she reluctantly left behind in Calcutta. Unfortunately, the limitations of such a young protagonist present a problem at the end: Eliot just isn't as emotionally responsive to the naive Mrs. Sen as an adult would be, and the story fizzles out. Nevertheless, Lahiri quietly manages to portray the confusion and despair a young Indian wife feels so far from home.

The call of Calcutta, the proud capital of the eastern Indian state of Bengal, is evident in almost every story in this collection; most of Lahiri's Indian characters are Bengali. Yet their situations are universal. In "This Blessed House," Sanjeev can barely stomach his young wife's glee at finding and displaying garish Christian objects -- a plastic Nativity scene, a plaster Virgin Mary statue -- around their new house in Connecticut; in "A Temporary Matter," Shoba and Shukumar fail to reconnect after Shukumar gives birth to a stillborn baby. Through Lahiri's stories, we learn bits and pieces about Indian life and culture and begin to understand how those bits and pieces fit into Indian lives in America.

Themes that interest Lahiri -- love, fidelity, tradition, alienation -- crop up in the lives of Indians and non-Indians alike. "Sexy," a story about infidelity and inexperience told from a non-Indian perspective, is proof that she can switch-hit. Miranda, a Midwestern woman with "silver eyes and skin as pale as paper," is having an affair with a married Bengali; she recalls with embarrassment ridiculing the only Indian family in the suburban neighborhood of her youth. The Dixits' house was "the only one with vinyl siding" and "detracted from the neighborhood's charm." Miranda remembers being so frightened of the Dixits' painting of the goddess Kali -- adorned with "a necklace composed of bleeding heads, strung together like a popcorn chain" -- that she was unable to walk on the same side of the street as their much-maligned house. The shame associated with her memories encourages Miranda to learn as much about Bengali culture as she can, indicating that, with a little incentive, prejudice can be recognized and overcome.

Two of the most powerful stories in Interpreter of Maladies explore the subject of Partition, the division of India and Pakistan by the British, in 1947. In "When Mr. Pirzada Came To Dine," set in New England in 1971 (the time of the civil war in Pakistan), 10-year-old Lilia observes the similarities between her Bengali parents and Mr. Pirzada, a Pakistani from Dacca, then a part of Pakistan and now the capital of Bangladesh. They "spoke the same language, laughed at the same jokes, looked more or less the same. . . . ate pickled mangoes with their meals, ate rice every night for supper with their hands." Across the world, in "A Real Durwan," Boori Ma, a stairwell sweeper deported to Calcutta after Partition, bemoans her fate in a voice "brittle with sorrows, as tart as curds, and shrill enough to grate meat from a coconut." Interlaced with telling detail, these disparate stories reveal Lahiri's craft, her careful choices, and her exquisite language.

The title story of the collection, "Interpreter of Maladies," is perhaps Lahiri's most ambitious. In it, a family of Indians from New Jersey, the Dases -- every bit "ugly Americans" -- hire an old-fashioned Indian guide, Mr. Kapasi, to drive them out to the Sun Temple in Konarak. Mr. Kapasi, conversant in nine languages, informs the family that he also works as an interpreter for a doctor. Like many of Lahiri's stories, this one touches on themes of love and duty. But the crux of the story hinges on wordplay -- what does "interpreter" mean? Mrs. Das, desperate for advice, confides in Mr. Kapasi, hoping that, as an "interpreter of maladies," he will offer an explanation for her unhappiness. Mr. Kapasi himself, unaccustomed to such a request, is at a loss as to how he should "interpret" her secret. Finally, he asks a single question, "to get to the heart of the matter," and the truth unfolds from there. This is why "Interpreter of Maladies" is such an apt title for Lahiri's book -- getting to the heart of the matter is what she does best.

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